Sex education referendum makes ideology a focus of race for Washington state schools chief

At a time of profound upheaval for the state’s 1.1 million students, the biggest flashpoint in the race between state schools chief Chris Reykdal and his reelection challenger Maia Espinoza boils down to a single sentence in the voter guide: The incumbent championed a sex education “policy that teaches sexual positions to fourth graders.” 

The statement is inaccurate. The law requires school districts to adopt a sex education curriculum of their choice that meets state standards. The standards suggest that fourth graders learn about puberty, reproduction, healthy relationships and communicable diseases. Espinoza’s voter guide statement is not referring to the law itself, but a book listed in a handout for parents that could be used for further reading. The handout accompanies one curriculum the state considers compliant with standards.

But the legal battle over those words, which the state Supreme Court ruled could remain in the voter guide because it was not defamatory, has turned the race into somewhat of a proxy war over a ballot measure, Referendum 90, that Espinoza helped land on the ballot this November. 

Pushback to the law helped make the race for this nonpartisan office one of the most ideological in recent memory, observers say, with each campaign falling more clearly along political party lines. 

Reykdal, a former Democratic legislator, is running on his optimism and faith in the system’s ability to adapt through policy reform, promising more support for students affected by access issues and projecting confidence that schools will weather the pandemic. As of Oct. 13, he had outraised Espinoza by $56,000, and has the endorsement of the statewide teachers union, a key financial contributor to Democrats. 

Espinoza, a policy advocate and Republican activist, built her campaign on fervent opposition to a 2020 state legislative law, which Reykdal supported, that requires school districts to adopt sex education curricula. She also has appealed to parents’ frustration about school closures during the pandemic, calling it an “assault on working families,” and has voiced support for school voucher programs. Although she has raised less, she spent $100,000 more than Reykdal as of Oct. 13, and has endorsements from several Republican lawmakers. 

As head of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the schools chief leads the state agency tasked with supervising the financial and academic welfare of 300 school districts, and lobbying the Legislature for funding and fixes. 

Reykdal, 48, from Tumwater, Thurston County, has worked for decades in the public sector as a state legislator, school board member and budget director for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. He started his career teaching high school history, and has children in the Tumwater School District.

Espinoza, 31, has never held elected office nor worked in a public school. She taught music at a private Catholic school in Lacey, Thurston County, and is currently executive director for the Center for Latino Leadership, which she says promotes civic engagement among Latinos. In 2018, she ran an unsuccessful campaign as a Republican for the 28th Legislative